Eroding image

This is not my image- annoyingly I can’t remember whose it is, I think it might be by Harry Callahan..will have to look back at my research..I saved it because I liked the double exposure, the dream quality and the use of the tilted building as a surface for the two figures. This is a reference for a photograph that I need to find in the Nita archive I’m working with….

As I dream of you

The text here comes from a letter to Nita, circa 1940- it’s a love/ fan letter sent to her at the stage door of the Victoria Palace Theatre. This is the  second letter that this particular admirer and audience member sent to Nita requesting a photograph of her.  I have never really seen a love letter like this before, it is quite cringe-worthy and superficial, written in the tropes of romantic pulp fiction. It is her image he seems to want and to be “in love with”, (as well as her physical beauty), which is also about a surface. That’s what I would like to try to show here…the infatuation and worship of the image or the surface. When I studied at Goldsmiths School of Art, the painters and teachers often talked about the ‘surface’ of a painting and how this altered and affected our reading of the work both emotionally and critically. And, only in analogue photography can you have a similar discussion, because arguably it is the physical chemical layering and its materiality or actuality- that penetrates and creates part of the surface of the image and therefore how we read it. The object (as a surface) quite clearly has a life span if it is not fixed, developed or stored correctly. Otherwise analogue photographic prints probably have a better chance of survival than any current digital format- for a variety if reasons, namely, the print is an original article, one that does not need to be ‘read’ by a machine or technology. Even my VHS cassettes in my attic are increasing expensive and difficult to transfer to current readable data. ‘Stanley’s’ on Brewer St transfer pretty much everything but it isn’t cheap and, it’s for professionals, meaning much of our domestic data will be forfeit in fifty years.

The image here is eroding. I found the print like this in the archive and digitally scanned it. It must have been a test print meant for the bin in the darkroom. Maybe Nita salvaged it and because it was not fixed or developed properly, it has gone red. The chemical process has reacted because the image was not ‘fixed’ into place and the chemistry and paper have caused reactions with the air over time, which in turn cause a reaction to the image and its surface. I love the scarlet, blotchy, deep erotic red of’s not often a colour you see- the same as many colours within analogue- you just can’t replicate them digitally, which makes me think that much like the spoken word, we are all dumbing down or being dumbed down as our everyday vocabulary shrinks.

P22(red stripes)


Nita on stage performing

Nita on stage                                                          Nita singing on stage, circa 1933.


I like the lighting and scale of Nita here. Also I love the painted backdrop and how the orchestra meld into the scenery.

I have a small 3-D card stage ‘cut-out’ to work on and I will try and turn this into a 3-D stage set, using the image above as a starting point and re-photograph the final piece in the studio. The scale and cut-out figures and scenery are important as are the visible layers of theatrical construct, (stage, scenery, curtain, the wings etc). May also colour with paint..

Double exposure. Nita and her mother.


This is a double exposed negative of Nita and her mother taken outside their house in London, Circa 1940. Although this portrait is technically a ‘mistake’ it helps creates part of the narrative that describes their symbiotic relationship. There is Nita on her own, and there is Nita joined to her mother. And, the mother appears here only with Nita, never on her own. Although Nita is central to the image and there are two of her, the mothers presence somehow dominates as if it cannot be removed or prized away from Nita or Nita’s image. The bodies of both women are inside the shape of Nita’s outline, seemingly creating a new form from the three bodies, like a perverse mother figure. The plaid suit echoes the lead plate window and brick work, creating yet more patterns, links and confines.

Ideas and things.

I’m writing my Academic research staff profile for UCA (University of the Creative Arts) and its hard to articulate exactly what it is you are trying to do as an artist with your research- but this is a few sentences of what I wrote and it helps me to post it here to remind me of what I’m trying to do:

Ellen’s research focuses on aspects of the representation and performativity in commercial and domestic photography. Her work considers the use of photography as a means of exploring the act of representation as a meditation on photography and image performance.

Hopefully this makes sense (even just to me at the moment) as to what I am trying to do with the Nita archive and the dialogue of the performance in the domestic images of Nita taken by her mother and the Studio images and movies shot by Paramount. The next thing I need to do is go to the BFI in London and watch her movie archive which is housed there. They have about six of her films and I’m hoping to be able to use some of the stills as part of new works.

On a completely new subject, I went to the magical Port Eliot Literary Festival last weekend and bumped into my old friend and mucker Beth Orton and her beautiful family. I scanned the old contact sheet from the Trailer Park album cover I shot of her in L.A (1996) That was twenty years ago…it doesn’t feel that long.Trailer Park

I must get the film footage from my brother Sean first but there was a impromptu performance there (in the Sipsmith bar at Port Eliot) by my Seven year old daughter Dorith. It was a dance performance which lasted twenty minutes, mainly standing on a trunk, and I think was influenced by seeing Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth give a ten minute performance rendition of the male guitar solo, (Dorith gave me the slip and I later found her right at the front of the stage at Kim’s feet). Then on the same day her seeing Denim, the excellent theatre drag act (she also went right to the front with all the other kids). And perhaps also seeing me disco dancing around the house and doing yoga (not at the same time). If you can imagine a performance/ dance that involves influences from all those elements, then you have an idea…What can you do? I’ll post it asap..

Back to the Nita project:

Some new sketches/ ideas to work on (below)

Scan 17

Photographia (2016)

I scanned this on black velvet. I think the fact that you can have your portrait taken, buy photographic supplies and gramophones/ records, theatre and travel tickets all from a man called Keith Prowse, demonstrates how high street shops used to function. And also the physicality of everything analogue, including photography and how that informs the experience of making it/ viewing it/ hearing it/ buying it.


Luggage label for boat

SS Manhattan ship passenger ticket for Nita in 1933.

I like the physicality of label this too- especially the string and reinforced punch hole.


Small notebook1

A page from one of Nita’s notebooks, (Nita’s writing, 1935).

I might use the text from here in another piece, not sure what yet. This is not the first time Nita has spoken about ‘melancholy‘ and ‘nerves‘, terms in the 1930’s for depression and anxiety. There’s something very current about this phenomenon and, depression and anxiety are illnesses that I’ve suffered from since having children. (I can date them back to when my mother died ten days before I gave birth to Dorith). So to see the illnesses documented and contextualised here in these terms in my Great Aunts archive is interesting for me personally but also I think historically. I imagine the roller coaster life of being an actor and performer made depression more difficult to handle as an illness because there was and is so little security in being an artist and for Nita, perhaps the only constant was family life. Maybe this was another reason for her close bond to her interior domestic life. For me this also informs the ‘performance’ in all of the photographs both commercial and domestic.

Nita old ruin

Nita in a ruin (Circa 1958)

As Nita aged, her scale reduced in the archive photographs, as if she was gradually receding away from the lens. You can especially see that here as she becomes camouflaged, part of the greater image.

New sketches & ideas to work on

Some more pieces I am working on:

Mostly sketches, some finished.

With Beating Heart I signed the contract (Paper collage & pencil)



Having Tea with the Barrymores (Digital print cut-out)

Nita archive: Reference material for new shoot with myself & Dorith


Alice Austin- Trude and I Masked, Short skirts.

I found this image in a recent exhibition I went to at Musees d’Orsay, Paris. It was called- Qui a peur des femmes photographes? (1839-1945)

The image below by Barbara Morgan was also in the show. The aesthetic reminds me of Martha Graham. I like the montage, the movement & the Modernism.

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Below are some of my favourite Francesca Woodman photographs. She is probably my favourite photographer and I find her incredibly inspiring. In a sense, she was too talented, if thats possible. I went to see her show at the Victoria Miro Gallery about 6 years ago. The prints were all medium sized beautifully printed and framed. All hung at the same height. There is a deep integrity combined with a sublime elegance to her work that makes it one of a kind and profoundly haunting & memorable.

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Nita: Archive fancy dress party. London, circa 1922

Fancy dress party at Nita’s parents house, circa 1922.                                                                                                                      
Nita is last on the right.
In real life these are highly detailed negatives. The whole party was photographed in a series of stills against the curtains. I love that all the people have made their costumes. It makes it a much more telling document of its time.

NITA fancy dresscrop
NITA fancy dress

NITA fancy dress CROP

NITA fancy dress CROP4


Reference material: Nita new work



I love these Ed Ruscha photos, I find them really sensual. I think he has a genuine understanding of architecture by showing its form in a photograph and also what the myth represents- the dream (the building may represent). When you go inside some Los Angeles buildings they make you feel different, like all good architecture should. I am drawn to modernism, like Ruscha was.
These are a reference for me when I finally get out to Los Angeles and film some real black & white film with a cinematographer.

Shadows outside the sound stages, Studios at Paramount lot. Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA

Shadows outside the sound stages, Studios at Paramount lot. Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA

I also need to get permission to go on the Paramount lot (above) to photograph. Still not sure whether to dress up as Nita or hire an actress. At the moment I’m still thinking about dressing as her. I have got into costume making recently and am going to probably attend a sewing course. I’m starting by making Dorith and I simple white ‘robe’ costumes (Roman style)- these take minimal sewing and hang well.


I like this Katy Grannon photo (above) because it reminds me of a film still (it might be one as she has recently made an amazing film). I like the colour in the black & white tone and the golden light, even though this has silver in it (looks like a silver gelatine print). I think this is analogue because digital alone still finds it hard get that metallic quality film has- it has’t got the materials or the chemicals.


Not sure what I’ll do with this yet but like the map/ chart nature of the illustration. I like the perspective.

(Nita played Jaqueline at the Coliseum Charing Cross in Me and my Girl. (Undated-1941) So she would have stood on that stage and performed for weeks with a different audience every time.

.Me and my girl- 1941 (found on ebay)

I once sang in a choir at the Royal Festival Hall and I was so terrified that my knees almost gave way. I would not be able to get on stage in front of an audience that big and sing solo- maybe I could talk but I couldn’t sing because I would be too terrified. I was surprised at the feeling I experienced on stage and I remember making a note of it in pencil on my copy of Handels Messiah and getting a curt once over from my Alto neighbour.

Beginning to make a fan prototype.

kazuo shiraga
Untitled (Red fan) Kazuo Shiraga
I like the size of this and the fact its a sculpture. I’d like to see it in real life. I think it looks quite erotic as an object. It makes you want to reach out and touch it. I wonder what its made from?

I’m making a fan out of one or more of the photographs. It’s more difficult than it sounds but I’ve made a start with it. I went to a fan making workshop and will experiment before I go back there. You have to have strong hands for it- towards the end of the 3 hours I could feel the muscles in my hands aching. I usually only get sore hands when I’m in the darkroom because I don’t like wearing gloves. I will be using the arch shaped collage I made of Nita sunbathing below. The shape suits the fan template:



I love Helen Chadwicks work (above). This is liquid emulsion on vinyl. I have some liquid light to try out on wood. First I need to find an old Silver Cross Pram or similar and photograph it against black velvet in the studio. I plan to put a painted photograph of Dorith in the pram. Pram in the hallway. It might not work though, won’t know until I try it. Will photograph the empty pram too as it might work on its own.
I need to find a pram to photograph that looks like the one below:

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Nita Archive project, new work.

Nita in a box (i).

I started to organise some of the objects and things that belonged to Nita- items her & my mother gave me previously or that were in her archive along with photos and documents. The flowery pillow case you can see below on the right was meant for night gowns but was stuffed full with about ten pairs of arm length white kid gloves. I will do something with these, with performance or a moving image piece as they are so theatrical. It looks like she wore them regularly because she has mended the fingers with tiny stitches. I will wear them and film myself. I’ve got a performance piece in mind.

The Shoe Doll (ii) Wendy McMurdo

For the studio shoot, I was influenced by the image above from the photographer Wendy McMurdo. I love this image and how the pre-owned object itself seems to come to life in it. With quite flat light (which I prefer) the artist has managed to conjure up a presence for the doll, a personality, which is exactly what it would have had in its previous owner’s mind- a child. It’s very tactile to, making you want to handle it. The fact that its a shoe also explores the idea of children’s powers of imagination- how much of these powers do we lose or suppress when we become adults?

I also started to photograph my six year old daughter Dorith on my Hasselblad, as part of the Nita project. Dorith has persistently shown a desire to perform. Most of her performances are dramatic freeze frames using dance & movement. I thought the obvious continuum to the Nita project was to include Dorith and myself in our roles as mother, daughter, photographer, performer. This perhaps was Dorith’s response to Great Aunt Nita’s archive as well as mine. Our home life is, though, like Nita’s seemed to be, very creative and a little bit theatrical, in that we are all play acting a lot of the time, dressing up, putting on silly voices, singing, dancing and performing to each other for fun.

Dorith3_1600 Dorith1600 DorithTriptych1600
Dorith, Performance (i) 2015

The archive is full of photographs of Nita, from a young age onwards performing to camera, taken by her mother, ‘Ma Harvey’. These images are extraordinary in many ways but I think mainly because they show an innate understanding of role playing as photographer and as performer.


This creative exchange between the mother and daughter was fine tuned for four decades and as a domestic photographic document it makes a powerful contrast to the highly constructed Paramount Studio images.

Recently I have been asked to contribute 8 pages to Photography & Culture journal. I have been using creative writing in my response to the archive for about three years now. Nita kept a journal which was published in Film Pictorial Magazine in 1933. She would post a letter from Hollywood to London every Wednesday, describing her experience there as a young actress. Her magazine journal was written in the tropes of Hollywood and whilst it is important as a document it is her personal letters that tell another story. Her real story, often written in letters to her mother, was full of distaste and cynicism for what she saw and experienced. It is in these letters and manuscripts that I found Nita.

For the journal I have been writing a short story about my childhood visits to the then semi-reclusive Nita and Great Uncle Ling. A descriptive term that kept surfacing for me was gothic. Perhaps it was the old stone house itself that seemed to encase them in their past. Perhaps it was the heavy, carved mahogany furniture and Ivy wall paper. Or was it Nita’s dramatic, white powdered face that smelt so sweet whenever I leant in to kiss her.